Hammering: Gaining and Maintaining Control in Dexterous Piano Playing

When students play piano passages that push the student to (or near) their limit of dexterity, every student except the extremely gifted will demonstrate a lack of control. Such passages could consist of several lines or pages of quick-running notes such as Burgmuller’s “Velocity”, or it could just be quick notes dispersed sporadically through a piece such as Ellmenreich’s “Spinning Song” (especially when the left hand takes over the melody in the middle section).   I define this “lack of control” to be one or more of the following:

  • Rhythmic unevenness
  • Dynamic unevenness
  • Lack of clarity (no precision in lifting fingers)
  • Lack of togetherness between hands1

This control problem arises when kinesthetic memory of rapid muscle movements starts to become so fluid that the student begins to “forget” about what it was like to perceive every note in the piece with individual clarity. For example, instead of the brain giving five separate commands to the fingers to play five separate notes, the brain starts to mush all five fingers together into one single command. Consequently, certain fingers play earlier than they should2, softer than they should, they don’t remove from the keys quickly enough, and there is less control over synchronization between the hands. I like to call this muscular blur with my students, or just muscu-blur.

A pianist is forced to experience piano playing with a feeling of "muscular blur."

Shown above: the imagined hand/finger configuration whenever music sounds like it is in desperate need of hammering.

It’s usually a sense that our brains know what our fingers should be doing, but our fingers don’t obey – there is a disconnect between deliberate, conscious intention and reality. This is why we notice our students’ pieces will most naturally deteriorate in quality week by week after they “finished” their piece. The greatest pianists never stop perceiving the individuality of every note they play, even when they’re playing 10 or more notes per second, even when they finished the piece a year ago. But students who perform their difficult piece over and over again and never actually practice the piece slowly are doomed to muscu-blur.

Most teachers have certain practice recommendations for students to address each of these issues. For example, I think most of us are familiar with the routine of playing long-short (swinging) pairs followed by short-long pairs in order to correct rhythmic unevenness. Dynamic unevenness can be corrected by playing the first of every four notes accented (or in compound meter, every three notes), followed by playing the second note accented, then the third, and so on. These approaches do work since they force the student to pay special, individualized attention to every single note. Unfortunately, these practice techniques are inefficient. Just one iteration of the rhythmic exercise requires playing a passage (or entire piece) twice, while the dynamic accent exercise requires playing it three or four times. There is also a certain tempo limit that cannot be surpassed with these exercises – one can only swing or accent notes at a reasonable tempo (it cannot be done while playing “ripping fast” passagework unless it is slowed down drastically). Why not instead use a practice technique that only requires one iteration and does not have any tempo ceiling? Better yet, why not use a practice technique that can address all four of the above technical weaknesses simultaneously with one iteration?

That is where a practice technique I call “hammering” comes in. My definition of hammering is when one practices at the fastest tempo one can control with absolute perfection (which is always slower than the performance speed when the piece isn’t done yet), playing every note in both hands forte, clear, rhythmically even, hands perfectly together, all with relaxed arms/hands. All dynamics, balance and voicing are ignored. If it is done right, it makes it sound like a computer is playing (or perhaps like the pianist is angry at the piano, although forte suffices – playing fortissimo is unnecessary).

Origin And Reinforcement

I first learned this technique as an undergraduate from Mark Westcott3 (1967 Van Cliburn winner), when he told me to play the difficult middle section passage of Chopin’s B-flat minor Scherzo over and over again with “all notes loud.” This was after I complained that no matter how much I practiced that nasty section, it simply did not get any better. Hammering produced instant results. I started utilizing the technique whenever there was any lack of control in my playing in passagework demanding dexterity.  It had effects that were nothing short of phenomenal.

A few years later, a college classmate was learning the Chopin F minor Ballade, and he came to me one day and said he reached a ceiling – no matter how much he practiced, it just wouldn’t get any better. This sounded <cough> strangely familiar to me. I told him to go hammer these difficult passages several times each day for the next couple weeks, and the next time I saw him, he said it was the single most useful advice anyone had ever given him to help him play piano.  He later played the piece brilliantly in his undergraduate recital.

Years later, Jon Nakamatsu (1997 Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist) came to my local city. While he was here, he gave a master class. Two of the three students playing in that master class had studied with me for 5-6 years, roughly up to the level of being able to play Schubert Impromptus and certain movements of Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. When these students left my studio, they were both “distinction” students, meaning they achieved a highly-coveted “distinction” rating in our local festival each year, a rating that had to be unanimous among all three judges (a rating that listed among its criteria, “a knock-your-socks-off performance”). Both students were hammering experts. They both hammered only those passages that needed hammering, only as much as needed, and I never had to talk about hammering with them – they were at a point where using it was instinctual on their part. Their playing showed it, because it was always so beautifully controlled.

Within three measures of hearing these students play the faster sections of their music, I could tell that they had been untrained to hammer by their new teacher. I knew these students well enough to know that they would continue hammering forever unless told otherwise. So they had to have been told otherwise. (We’ll talk later about why some teachers would want to reject the single most helpful practice technique known to the world of pianism.) Sure enough, what was the very first thing Jon Nakamatsu said to both of them? He told them that they needed to “be able to play their pieces like a computer” (his exact words), where the volume of every note is normalized to a loud volume. Sweet justice. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jon. (I had no hard feelings whatsoever toward the students themselves, but it was still upsetting to remember their hyper-fussy parents, and their new teacher had a reputation for slandering students’ former teachers when they transferred to her as a way to build respect within her studio.)

Notice my emphasis of “be able to” in the Jon Nakamatsu quote above. This practice routine has nothing to do with whether we like how hammering sounds or whether such playing would want to be heard on stage. Obviously, it sounds terrible. But if one is incapable of playing a piece like a computer, how in the world would they be capable of playing it with perfect musical inflection and control? I myself have always used the same computer analogy with my students to describe hammering to them because I’ve had so much experience hearing how computers perform music – as in, what you hear after you input notes into any music notation program using a mouse and have the computer play it back4.

I train all of my students to hammer, beginning with the first time control becomes an issue in a passage requiring dexterity (usually at the intermediate level), and I regularly get similar voluntary, unprompted feedback from them about how effective it is. Many practice techniques are effective, but none seem to produce as dramatic and sweeping results as hammering. It truly is a magic bullet.

How It Works

Some say hammering is “unmusical”.  It depends on what definition of “musical” we are talking about.  If we’re talking about, “Something that sounds musically pleasing,” then they’re right: this is unmusical. But if we’re talking about, “Something that requires great musicianship to accomplish” (the definition I have in mind), then they’re completely wrong. It takes every bit as much dynamic discernment and concentration to detect a dynamic flaw that deviates by only 10% in a series of notes played equally loud as it does to detect a dynamic flaw in a series of notes played as a crescendo or diminuendo. And we’re not just listening for dynamic evenness when we hammer: we’re listening for rhythmic evenness, togetherness and clarity as well. I have spent small portions of lessons for many weeks with some students trying to get them to hammer in just the right way. When they find it, control over their playing skyrockets.

Let’s now compare the likelihood of musical success for hammering vs. accenting every third or fourth note.  Supposing 10 is fortissimo while 1 is pianissimo, and a student tries to play notes with the following dynamic pattern:

10  1  1  1  10  1  1  1

…but the student plays instead:

8  2  1  3  9  2  2  1

Inevitably the student concludes their mission has been accomplished, because it’s so difficult to compare the 8’s and 9’s together when they don’t occur one after another. The 1s, 2s and 3s are also difficult to judge against each other because of the surrounding (distracting) accents.  This method of addressing dynamic evenness is somewhat successful but still leaves holes.

But now suppose the student tries to play the following dynamic pattern:

8   8   8   8   8   8   8   8……

Every time the student plays a 7 or 9, these minute differences will be easier to detect because we are now comparing apples right next to each other, instead of comparing apples with three oranges between.

As if killing four birds (rhythmic evenness, dynamic evenness, clarity, togetherness) with one stone weren’t enough, here are three more birds for you:

1. Reinforcement of kinesthetic memory:  When every note is played loudly, it gives the pianist greater kinesthetic sensation both in movement and in feedback for every note played. Norman Doidge (p. 63-64) discusses research that M. Merzenich designed or helped carry out over the past few decades, studying the brain maps of monkeys, finding that after months of living with two fingers that are sewn together, a monkey’s brain would map those two fingers as one. Any stimulus on either of the two sewn fingers would light up the same part of the brain map. These results were also confirmed on humans with “webbed-finger syndrome,” and surgically separating the two fingers caused the human brain to remap each finger individually. This demonstrates that timing of sensations in the fingers affect the brain’s map of the fingers: when two fingers always experience the same sensations at the same time, those two fingers are eventually treated as one, and when the brain perceives independence in finger sensations (both in movement and in feedback), the brain’s map of those fingers is refined for greater independence and control. Neuroscience now knows this as Neurons that fire apart wire apart – or Neurons out of sync fail to link. Hammering is done at a slightly slower tempo than the performance tempo, allowing the pianist enough time to redevelop their sense of individuality of each note, and when those sensations are made more intense (loud playing), the return of this feeling is hastened.

2. Reinforcement of audio memory:  The feedback we get from sound works the same way as tactile feedback does. We pianists tend to remember notes (sound) with more clarity than we remember rests (lack of sound). Hearing every note played with equal dynamic importance reminds us of all the notes that should be executed with equal conscious attention during performance, regardless of expression.

3. Reinforcement of analytical memory:  Because it involves practicing slower so that every note is totally controlled, it ensures that one is still mentally engaged on a microscopic level when playing at a fast speed.  Fast tempos have a way of making us forget about the nitty-gritty details we had digested when we first learned the piece, and so memory weaknesses develop. I think hammering is one of the reasons I’ve always recovered from wrong notes and slips quickly. Mistakes I’ve made have never been a function of not remembering what I’m supposed to play – it’s always because I physically get “off track” then must get back on track, mishitting notes or slipping off of keys.  This isn’t to say that it makes students analyze music correctly or thoroughly – it’s just to say that the student will hold on to as much of their own level of analysis as is practical for them.

I know every teacher has both experienced in their own playing and experienced in their students’ playing the phenomenon of a finished piece deteriorating over time. This goes back to what I described above, the lack of individual perception of every note. Deteriorating pieces can only be fixed by reinforcing the individuality of every note. Nothing is more efficient at doing this than hammering.

I call it hammering, Nakamatsu calls it playing like a computer, Westcott calls it playing every note loud. Whatever you call it, it works. In my book, a fast piece has no hope of being considered “done” technically if one is incapable of hammering it perfectly all the way through – it will still demonstrate technical holes. This is always true. There have never been any exceptions.

Also, if one’s level of skill exceeds by a sufficient margin the skill level required by the piece of music, then there will be no need to hammer.  On the other end of the spectrum, if a student is playing a piece that takes them two years to complete (which is how most teachers would define a piece being “too hard” for a student), then the student is going to have to hammer the piece several times each day for every one time they perform it.  But for most pieces, the hammer-to-performance ratio (number of times a piece is hammered for every time it’s performed up to speed with dynamics) is going to be somewhere between 1:10 and 1:1.

Pitfalls

If students come to lessons and say they hammered that week, but their playing still demonstrates an unacceptable lack of control, I tell the student they did not hammer correctly that week, or they did not hammer enough. I am right every time. Hammering absolutely works all the time for everybody, and if it isn’t producing results, then it isn’t being used correctly.

Here are the most common mistakes students make when trying to hammer.  These problems correspond exactly with the four benefits I described above, and actually, it seems almost silly for me to list these like this because it seems so obvious. But bear with me:

  1. Failing to identify notes that are slightly softer than other notes (such as “10 10 9 10 10 8 10 10”).
  2. Failing to correct very slight rhythmic unevenness in the hammering itself.
  3. Not quickly lifting fingers up exactly when the next note plays.
  4. Failing to fix lack of togetherness when it occurs.

In other words, hammering doesn’t work if the student is not actually hammering.  It may not seem helpful to write this because of how obvious it is, but I have to point out all the time to students who are new to hammering that they aren’t actually meeting the definition of hammering. It’s a little harder than it sounds for someone who has never hammered before. Also, typically the hammer tempo is about 10-15% slower than the performance tempo. If the student must slow down to a tempo that is much more than 15% slower than the performance tempo, that means the student’s performance tempo is way too fast (and likely they are stumbling every 1-2 measures). On the other side of the coin, if the student’s performance tempo is not unreasonable, but the hammer tempo is taken too slow (again, a lot more than 15% slower), then the hammering experience with that piece will seem too far removed from the performance tempo to be of any help. Picking just the right hammer tempo – fast enough to be challenging and to resemble the real music but slow enough to make perfection possible – then it won’t help as much if it helps at all.

Objections

Unfortunately, some teachers have a philosophical/emotional objection to it that serves no purpose in the realm of good pedagogy (remember, pedagogy is supposed to be a scientific approach toward teaching). For these teachers, music is art, and no art should be treated like a sport by engaging in physical training. They say that nothing we do to produce this art or emotion can resemble something that doesn’t seem very artistic. Since “playing like a computer” doesn’t create the “artistic air” that some teachers want, they conclude that hammering while practicing will only lead to a performance that sounds mechanical, harsh, etc. The fact is, I can play softer and with more sensitivity when I have complete control over the music, and that’s what hammering gives to me – control. I am still left to come up with intoxicating musical ideas on my own, but at least hammering makes those ideas more possible to turn into physical reality once those ideas arrive.

I’ve also heard a world-renown pianist/professor say that we teachers must absolutely forbid ourselves from ever using words like “hammer,” “slam,” “pound,” etc. when giving students instruction. Again, this is nothing more than a personal/philosophical objection to these words which has no basis in good pedagogy. Show me the study that shows that no pianist who has ever spoken or thought of “hammering” or “slamming” the piano has never once won an international piano competition. Ever since then, I’ve gone out of my way to use words like that when they are musically appropriate, such as with Prokofiev or certain fortissimo/fortississimo sections of other composers), and just as I expected, it hasn’t had any positive or negative effect whatsoever on my students’ playing – it has produced the same effect as if I had said, “Make the piano growl” or “Give it all you got.” Contrary to what these pianists often believe, while audiences can certainly hear the dynamic level of a struck note, they cannot telepathically hear non-musical adjectives that reside in the brains of pianists as they strike notes. I think better advice would have been, “Only use these words when they match the effect you’re trying to produce on the piano.”

Yes, it is true that sometimes certain adjectives can have positive or negative effects on the particular technique a student uses to play a passage.  But this effect cannot be generalized to the entire population.  Even the most extreme adjectives such as “slam” and “pound” will make one student do one thing (play with forearms) while another student does something different (play partially with forearms but mostly with hands dropping from the wrist joint).  One never wants to “slam” at the cadence of a Bach fugue, but to ask people never to use this word – ever – in piano instruction, is nothing more than a cranky and unnecessary overreaction to loud, percussive playing.

The other objection I’ve heard against hammering is a more general objection to the study of technique at the piano. Those who believe that repertoire alone is sufficient for technical development are, from what I have observed so far (without exception), grown up prodigies. They are people who neglected technical exercises as children and developed phenomenal technique anyway. They have tentacles growing directly out of their brains that make the piano keys do anything they want just by willing it to happen, and they assume that when other people play with suffering technique, it’s a musical problem that should be fixed only by creating a more accurate audio image of the music.  (This is a real argument I encountered by a Polish instructor who teaches using the “Chopin Method.”) Their natural technique has made technique invisible to them. So, of course, they will never understand the value of hammering and will consequently make fun of it the same way Saint-Saens makes fun of pianists in Carnival of the Animals.

References

Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Viking, 2007.

(c) 2014 Cerebroom

  1. It might seem that lack of togetherness is the same as rhythmic evenness, but while rhythmic unevenness will certainly cause lack of togetherness (and vise-versa), it still isn’t quite the same thing from the point of view of human perception. The rhythmic interaction between fingers on different arms of our body feels like a different phenomenon to the human mind than the mere sequence of one linear rhythm in one hand. For those who might follow this esoteric analogy, I think of it kind of like how piano technicians hear beats when they’re tuning a string:  a beat is the newly-created frequency of two separate frequencies interacting with each other. Just as a piano technician cannot evaluate or fix beats without the presence of at least two vibrating strings, a pianist also cannot evaluate or fix lack of togetherness by playing hands alone.
  2. rhythmic unevenness always consists of rushing, not dragging – if rhythm drags, then it’s a dexterity issue, not a control issue.
  3. It would be interesting to know where Mark Westcott learned this technique, where his teacher learned it, and ultimately who the first pianist or keyboardist was to utilize hammering.
  4. In my high school years, I notated around 100 pages of music of Mendelssohn into a computer program called Visual Composer by Adlib. I had to go to a lot of trouble to add dynamics, balance and voicing to the “.rol” files I created, and until I did, the music sounded hammered.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
Practicing

1 response to Hammering: Gaining and Maintaining Control in Dexterous Piano Playing


  1. Linda

    Very interesting and thought-provoking! I am inspired to try this method out with my students–next week! 🙂

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